As I prepared for my upcoming 3 day conference for 900 people, I asked my convention services manager for the evacuation maps and the hotel’s emergency procedures. This is a  common practice that I have done so many times over the last 25 years before I take a group onsite to the venue.

The first day of the conference started relatively uneventful, but something in my Conference Manager mind just didn’t feel right.  I watched the last speaker prior to lunch get on stage, and messaged my coordinator, who was overseeing the final preparations on our tradeshow.  Her reply came and what she said made me get off my chair, “The Fire Marshall is here.” Now normally I would have said “ok, let me know when he leaves and clears us”, but not today, today I got off my seat and went to meet him.

I located him in the back hallway behind the ballroom where the tradeshow was in.  He immediately informed me that we were not allowed to open the doors to the tradeshow space as he had found too many tables and chairs impeding emergency exits.  After just a short period of time, the house staff cleared everything away and I thanked the Fire Marshall for keeping an eye out for our safety. Making my way through the foyer, I went to check on the lunch set up knowing that I would have 900 attendees coming through the doors in 35 minutes all with hungry stomachs not thinking much about what just happened.

Sure enough the speaker ended on time and the doors opened to the foyer and tradeshow areas.  The convention services manager and the chef came out to oversee the meal function. We stood and watched the attendees move around the space when to everyone’s surprise the fire alarm rang out! Not something you ever want to hear at a conference.  Since the chef was a member of senior staff, he had a radio connecting him to the hotel’s emergency team. I watched him trying to understand what was happening when I heard the words, “we have a visual”, he looked at me and said one word “Evacuate!”.

I guess having a plan in your head for over 20+ years, it becomes second nature on those few occasions when you have to use it.  I directed my registration staff to get me an updated attendee list, had my coordinator go into the ballroom and start moving people while I channeled my inner Drill Sergeant.  Walking from one group of people to the next, I interrupted “Excuse me Ladies and Gentlemen, we have been directed to evacuate the hotel NOW, please walk through the back of the ballroom, turn left and out the back doors.”  Myself and my staff did this over and over again, through hallways and ballrooms, until each and every one of our attendees were no longer inside the hotel; but wait, we did this with little to no help from the banquet staff that were all standing around still refreshing our buffets.  WTH?!

I was in contact with my convention services manager throughout the evacuation process and at no time was I given an “All Clear”.  Still standing inside the building making sure I didn’t see anyone else inside, I saw some of my attendees coming back into the meeting space.  I had people telling me “Yeah there was a guy on staff on the second floor is telling everyone to come back in.” This wasn’t the process that I went over with the hotel staff at precon.  I was told that if this was to happen, I would get a phone call to let me know it was safe to reenter the building with my attendees.

Still without this signal, I instructed my attendees to go outside and wait with the others.  Within the next 15 minutes I finally did receive the “All Clear” phone call. After I assured my attendees were all inside and back to eating, I called a meeting with the hotel management staff.

After having a very open conversation with the hotel, I did find out there was a small fire in the self-serve restaurant…those damn toasters.  I was also told that there was a breakdown in communication and that the hotel would be addressing this with staff immediately and retraining would happen at once. This was evident over the following days when I saw and overheard training taking place.

WHAT DID I TAKE AWAY FROM ALL OF THIS…besides a few more gray hairs?!

  1. That the Fire Marshall did his job and if this was bigger than a toaster fire, he would have saved at least 900 lives that day.
  2. Always get the evacuation maps and plan from your hotel prior to arriving onsite.
  3. Make sure your staff knows and understands the EMERGENCY PLAN
  4. Review this plan with the hotel management staff at precon.
  5. I know it isn’t the most interesting content, but at the beginning of your conference, make sure you have a few opening slides detailing how your attendees evacuate all the major areas of the conference.
  6. I will always ask to be notified when the Fire Marshall is inspecting my event if for no other reason then to thank them for keeping us safe.

What is my Emergency Plan, you might ask?  Well, let me detail some of it:

Emergency Plan

  • Chain of Command!
    • It starts with YOU, the event manager, and ends with YOU.  You are the captain of the ship and one way or another your attendees are your responsibility.
  • Create text groups for all logistical personnel onsite or have radio communications with them.
  • Establish one primary phone for all communications with the hotel and then a back up phone in case a cell phone battery dies while the emergency happens.
  • Always have an up to the minute list of attendees with cell phone numbers and emergency contacts.
    • It is very helpful to have an electronic registration system. Your list of attendees is always updated in real time and will save you from juggling pieces of paper.   What is the importance of this list you may ask; if this was a catastrophe you need to know everyone that could possibly be in the building.
  • Microphones in all common areas for announcements.
  • All logistical personnel have evacuation maps.
  • Evacuation maps and procedures at registration desk.  This will end up being the central place for everyone to go.

I had hoped I’d never have to use my Emergency Plan, and I’m lucky that this incident was very minor, but if an incident like this happens to you and it’s bigger than a Toaster, be ready!

***Oh and you know those doors that the Fire Marshall had the hotel clear? Yes, those were the doors my attendees had to evacuate the building through!!!   Thank you Orange County Fire Department!

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